Many of you who have travelled to the battlefield of France and Belgium with me will know that if there is one thing I hope you take away it is that you will forever remember the men who paid the ultimate price. A charity that will not let us forget and works hard to help us remember with its good work is The Victoria Cross Trust; recently I was asked to guide them through a number of VC Holders who died during World War One; below are their thoughts when we returned:
As I travelled in a comfortable warm car through the rain-drenched fields of Northern France heading towards Arras with my Matt Limb, I started to think about how a young man would feel travelling these very same roads in 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force or BEF in 1914. As they marched through the Autumn sunshine they could be forgiven for thinking they were still in England. As we travelled around the battlefields of the Somme I realised how familiar the terrain was, and how this Great War could have taken place in England had the BEF not gone to France. We quite easily could have been in Kent, Cambridgeshire or Lincolnshire.
We visited a number of battlefields and cemeteries as we travelled around the Somme, some held more historical interest than others and were popular with the many visitors from all over the world who made the journey to this region of France. One location we visited was little known, but not strictly on The Somme; from the absence of wooden poppy crosses and entries in the Cemetery Visitors Book and Register, rarely visited.
We were there on 2nd November, the exact day in 1918 that Sgt Hugh Cairns VC died from wounds received the day before. The small cemetery at Auberchicourt stands alone at the side of a small narrow road surrounded by open fields and was used to bury the dead from a medical station within the small village 200 yards away.
Hugh Cairns was only 21 years old when he died, originally from Northumberland, he had travelled to Canada in the hope of starting a new life. Then came the call from his homeland to fight and in 1915 he enlisted with his brother to fight as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
The battle around Valenciennes at the beginning of November 1918 was fierce, as is shown in his VC citation; equally as fierce was the fighting at Vimy Ridge 18 months earlier where Sgt Cairns was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in what is now a Canadian nationalistic symbol of achievement and sacrifice. Just nine days after his death the war ended with the army of Germany surrendering, sadly not to make the journey back to Canada and his newly adopted home.
At the time of my visit, I felt a closeness to Sgt Cairns which is difficult to put into words, I placed a poppy cross on his grave and said a few words to him in a very private moment, sometimes ‘thanks mate’ and nod of appreciation might not seem much, but I felt sure he would understand entirely what I was trying to say.
All around him lay other soldiers who had died in the weeks leading up to the war finishing, though I did not know their stories as I knew Sgt Hugh Cairns, I thanked them all for being with him, as a father might thank the mates buried with his son.
As we drove away I did not feel sad or upset but I felt I now had a greater understanding of that period of time and the events that happened in France, the understanding you gain is not one of experiences or of politics, but of empathy. An empathic understanding of the entire sacrifice that was made by young men far from home and to some degree an understanding of why so many Victoria Crosses were awarded.
Our final act was to stand next to the grave of Captain Noel Chavasse VC & Bar and Military Cross in another small cemetery, this time in Belgium. As I read aloud his citation I finally realised why the valorous Few of the Great War was so important.
I had spent three days with Matt travelling around the Somme and Ypres area. Besides the great and in-depth factual and historical knowledge that Matt obviously has, he also had the insight to lead me on a journey he knew I needed to make, not one of learning facts and dates and odd-sounding French village names, but something much more important.
To understand why the history of the 627 VC holders needs to be told and not forgotten, why they are focal points of remembrance and that in each individual case, they represent the actions and sacrifice of so many soldiers of the British Empire that died during World War One, or returned home with injuries that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Matt, Thank You.